Caps for Sale (and the Art of Influence)

“How do you get someone to push you?”

I was taking a wrestling class as a kid and that was the question the coach posed as he demonstrated a new move.

“You push him first. Then he’ll want to push back and you can use his momentum to your advantage.”

That may have been the first practical lesson I was given in the art of influence. People respond in kind. The actions we get are often reactions to our own actions. The question is: how do we begin?

Caps for Sale

Mark Miller wrote an ebook recently called Leaders Go First. In it he makes a promise: If you’ll set the example for your team, you’ll be on the path to more influence and impact. Why? Because people always watch the leader. They take their cues from us.

How do you relate with your followers? This could mean your direct reports, your customers, other stakeholders in the organization, your community, your family. What are you teaching them to do based on your behavior? If you trust them, they’ll trust you and each other. If you’re aggressive, you’ll teach them to either push themselves or push back. If you give them responsibility, you’ll teach them to take responsibility. At the end of the day, as people and as leaders, we all reap what we sow.

Dale Carnegie said to always smile, because people will be more likely to smile back. Zig Ziglar said to greet people enthusiastically, because that way you set a positive tone for the engagement. In both cases, you are more likely to build a strong connection, make a sale, make a friend or influence someone else in a positive way.

One of the very first books I ever read as a small child was Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina. Like many classic books, it’s a simple story with a timeless lesson. The way I remember it, a cap peddler goes on a journey but gets tired and decides to take a nap against a tree. When he wakes up, he finds that all his caps have been taken by a bunch of rambunctious monkeys sitting in the branches. At first the peddler asks for the hats back, but the monkeys decline. Next he pleads with them. Soon his temper gets the better of him and he puts on an animated display for the monkeys, who simply laugh at him and say “tss, tss, tss.” Finally, in one last show of frustration, the peddler takes off his own cap and hurls it onto the ground. Immediately all the monkeys follow suit. The caps all come raining down and the peddler collects them up and finally continues on his way.

I suppose there could be several different morals to the story. Always secure your caps if you take a nap outdoor. Always do a risk assessment before taking a business trip. Don’t try to reason with monkeys. Take your pick. But from a leadership standpoint, it’s a poignant reminder to lead with the behavior we want instead of waiting until it’s the last resort.

What behavior are you seeking from your followers?

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.